Oxidize a Sterling Silver Necklace

Oxidize a Sterling Silver Necklace

Last week's article described how to craft a sterling silver wire-connector and bead-link necklace. In this article, learn how to apply its optional oxidized finish using liver of sulfur, steel wool, and a power rotary tool.

When you oxidize sterling silver, you are intentionally darkening (or tarnishing) it in a controlled way to increase detail and the appearance of depth in a design. The most popular way to oxidize sterling silver is to immerse it in a solution of water and a chemical called liver of sulfur. You can find liver of sulfur at most jewelry supply stores.

Here are the basic steps for achieving an oxidized finish on our bead-link necklace. You may need to experiment by slightly altering some steps in order to achieve the look and degree of oxidation that most appeals to you.

Tools & Supplies:

  • A small (peppercorn to pea sized) piece of active liver of sulfur (learn what I mean by "active" below)
  • A long pair of tweezers (preferably plastic, or metal tweezers you don't mind darkening)
  • A plastic spoon (or metal spoon you'll only use for this purpose)
  • A small, heat-resistant bowl (like a small Pyrex bowl)
  • About 1/2 cup of hot (but not boiling) water
  • Paper towels
  • A piece of #000 (extra fine) steel wool
  • A power rotary tool with fully-manual speed control (or the ability to operate at a very low speed), with a steel-bristle brush wheel attachment
  • A little bit of mild dish soap
  • A sink and faucet
  • Optional but recommended: A pair of plastic gloves to avoid getting liver of sulfur on your hands

What to Do:

1. Fill the small bowl with about 1/2 cup of very hot (but not boiling) water.

2. Using tweezers or a spoon, add the tiny piece of liver of sulfur to the water and stir it a little to help it dissolve. Do not touch the liver of sulfur with your hands, and avoid breathing its fumes.

Important Liver of Sulfur Precautions:

Liver of sulfur is often sold in solid, chalky chunks in small jars or tubs. You may need to carefully break up a larger chunk to create the tiny one you need. Wear plastic gloves, and avoid breathing any dust from liver of sulfur while you do this. Make sure that the spoon (or whatever utensil) you use to break up the liver of sulfur - and to remove it from its tub or jar - is completely dry.

Moisture, as well as light and air, make liver of sulfur become inactive; that is, it stops working. You can preserve the active life of your liver of sulfur supply by keeping it completely dry and stored in an air-tight container in a dark cabinet or drawer.

Liver of sulfur can be toxic, so always store it securely away from children and pets. Always read and follow all the safety precautions noted on your liver of sulfur container.

The best place to work with liver of sulfur solution is outdoors, but you can use it indoors if you have excellent ventilation.

At this point, the water in the bowl should have a mild yellow color. If it's clear, then your liver of sulfur is probably inactive, and you'll need to buy a fresh supply.

3. Using tweezers, immerse the necklace completely in the water. After 2 or 3 seconds, remove it from the bowl and rinse it with water from a faucet. (If you're working outdoors, you can use a garden hose, or a bucket or large bowl of water for dunk-rinsing.)

4. Inspect the necklace to see how dark it has become. If it's just a little dark and you'd like it to be darker, dunk it into the water again for a few seconds, then remove it and rinse again.

If it is very dark, then you probably used a too-large portion of liver of sulfur (make a note to use less in the future).

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 until the necklace is just a little darker than you'd like it to be in the end. (If it's too dark, stop and move on to the next step.) Set the necklace down on a stack of paper towels.

A note about color: Most artisans like their oxidized silver to be gray, but oxidation can also result in brownish colors. A light brown color usually means that the metal needs further oxidation; but dark brown colors can occur even when the metal is heavily oxidized. You can remove unwanted dark brown color using the techniques described below.

6. Dispose of the liver of sulfur by slowly pouring it down a sink drain with the water in running. Keep the water running a little while after the bowl is empty to fully dilute the solution and flush it through the pipes (so your house or studio doesn't smell like sulfur.)

7. Re-wet the necklace and wet the small piece of steel wool under running water, and very gently rub the sterling connectors with the steel wool. Do this for all sides of each connector to remove excess oxidation and create highlights. (Some artisans perform this step dry, rather than with water. Experiment to see which works best for you.)

In the photo below right, the arrow points to some dark gray and dark brown oxidation that is left on the tiny wire coils around the beads. We'll remove some of this using a power rotary tool and a steel-wire brush wheel attachment.

8. Hold a portion of the necklace very securely across and between the fingers of one hand, and hold the power rotary tool in your other hand. (For more information about rotary tools, also called flex-shafts, see my review of Making the Most of Your Flex-Shaft.) Always follow all safety precautions that are provided with your rotary tool.

9. Running the motor very slowly, gently press the steel bristles against the wire coils and loops, for just a second at a time, until you have removed the excess oxidation and are satisfied with the color of the wire.

Important: Go very slowly with this step, and make sure that you keep the section of necklace you're working on secure between your fingers. If you do not, the necklace could become wrapped around the rotary tool attachment and break or even cause injury.

10. When you're satisfied with the color of your necklace, wash it under the tap with a small amount of mild dish detergent, pat it with paper towels, then lay it out on paper towels to fully dry.

That's it! Wear and enjoy your newly oxidized necklace. If it ever becomes too dark through natural tarnishing (which can happen if you don't wear it often), go back and use extra fine steel wool and/or your rotary tool to buff it down again.

For more on metal jewelry finishes, pick up a copy of The Jeweler's Directory Of Decorative Finishes.

To learn more about intermediate-to-advanced jewelry making techniques like this one, take a look at The Encyclopedia of Jewelry-Making Techniques: A Comprehensive Visual Guide to Traditional and Contemporary Techniques.

Chris Franchetti Michaels is a writer and jewelry artisan specializing in beaded designs, wire work, and metal fabrication. She is the author of the books Teach Yourself Visually: Jewelry Making and Beading, Beading Quick Tips, and Wire Jewelry Quick Tips. Visit her website BeadJewelry.net for more jewelry-making help and inspiration.

You Should Also Read:
Polishing Sterling Silver with a Rotary Rock Tumbler
Getting Started Making Metal Jewelry - Book Review
Making the Most of Your Flex-shaft - Book Overview

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This content was written by Chris Franchetti Michaels. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Susan Mendenhall for details.